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Editors' Picks Interviews

An Interview with Gareth Evans, Former Foreign Minister of Australia

Gareth Evans served as Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, under two Labor Party governments. After leaving domestic politics, he led the international commission that developed responsibility to protect (R2P), the doctrine adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 that obligates the international community to protect communities from war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The Politic’s Keera Annamaneni spoke with Evans, who is currently the chancellor of Australian National University, when he visited Yale earlier this year.

The Politic: As foreign minister, you hoped to shift emphasis away from the U.S., the UK, and traditional allies and towards Asian countries, say, China and Indonesia. Can you talk about how that relates to maybe changing world order and what factors went into that strategic move?

Gareth Evans: Well, from Australia’s point of view, I took the view very early on that our future was going to be determined much more by our geography than by our history. And as a lawyer, I don’t think, in my early days, I could possibly foresee any more than anyone else did at the time, China’s spectacular rise. Nonetheless, we could see the significance of India. We could see the significance within Asia of major, major countries. We could see our own growth and development path. Of course, Japan, of course, South Korea were already very important economic partners of Australia, much more so than any North American or European country.

So it seemed to me that our future was very clear, and everything that’s happened in recent years has borne that out. China has now moved into a much more overtly assertive phase. It’s no longer, as we once thought, biding its time and hiding its  strength. China is out there making very clear it wants to be a major player and not only in the region but on the global stage. And it’s trying to compete as a major player because of its size and its strength. I think, under those circumstances, the United States has to think rather hard about how it wants to handle this relationship. And all the familiar language of the United States policy in Asia: dominance, primacy, predominance, preeminence, “We’re going to remain the number one power.” Even Barack Obama saying, in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership issue, we make the rules. China doesn’t make the rules, we make the rules. All this is terribly counterproductive to finding a comfortable space in which the two countries can live.

The wisest thing I ever heard said with application to the U.S.-China issue that we’re now witnessing was actually by Bill Clinton in a private meeting that I happened to be on a platform with him after he left the presidency in 2002 in California. And he actually said in these words, which have never been repeated publicly except here at Yale, actually, three or four years later, but not quite in these words. What he said, and it’s indelibly in my memory, is that “America has got two choices about the way in which we use this great and unrivaled economic and military power that we have. Choice number one is to use that to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Choice number two is to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.”

And I thought that was just pitch perfect, because it recognized the reality that the wheels were going to turn and the tectonic plates were going to shift, as they obviously now have, and that America could no longer maintain this position of unrivaled supremacy. It had to give China some strategic space. It had to work on creating in the global order a much more cooperative framework. It had to let China be a rule maker as well [rather than] require it just to go on being a rule taker. And I think this is—forget about the Trump administration that has no idea what it’s doing. There’s no coherence or credibility or direction. We’re all trying to read the tea leaves as what’s going to matter more, the outrage against China’s economic trading dominance, or whether it’s the need to accommodate China in the hope that it will solve the North Korea problem or all this. God knows what is going to come out of the Trump administration. But what is clear is that the rest of us at least have to work on creating an environment which is cooperative rather than confrontational.

It’s going to be competitive, but it doesn’t have to be confrontational. I don’t think China is in the slightest bit interested in pushing the envelope in terms of violent confrontation with anybody, going to war with anybody. I think it will push the envelope in terms of hegemony acceptance, reestablishment of the old tributary relationships that use to have kowtow. It will push that as far as it can, but that’s why we need to push back against that when it manifests itself in things like the South China [Sea] scene. So I haven’t given up for a moment on China being an effective cooperative player in the global order, engaged in promoting global public goods, regional public goods. We’ve seen that with climate change, we’ve seen it with trade policy. Yes, there’s an element of cynical opportunism there, jumping in to fill the space that the Americans have left, but it’s more than that. I think China genuinely sees it being to its advantage to be an effective member the global community.

And on things like the responsibility to protect, which we’re going to talk about I guess in a moment, I never found China being nearly as resistant to that notion, going all the way back to the beginning, as I expected it to be, given its traditional assertiveness about internal affairs, and Xinjiang is nobody else’s business, and Tibet’s nobody else’s business, and Taiwan is certainly not anybody else’s business. But even with all of that tradition of sovereignty and internal affairs are nobody else’s business, they did not stand in the way of the embrace of the responsibility of the principle back in 2005. And nor are they to this day. I think they are prepared to be a reasonably constructive player. They play an active role in peacekeeping, far more than the other P5—the five members of the Security Council. And I don’t think it is all sinister, and I don’t think it is all opportunism. And I think they do generally want and deserve a place in the wider cooperative universe that we should be working hard to create.

Did you find the American or western liberal framework to be useful when dealing with Asian countries, specifically China? How did that framework have bearing on peacekeeping efforts?

Well, you can call them liberal ideals. I just call them universal values. I mean, America would be a lot better off if it stopped talking so much about Western values and American values and our values and talked about universal values. Which are, after all, reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reflected in the Genocide Convention, predicated on our common humanity and a necessity for cooperative action to keep the peace and to avoid grotesque human rights catastrophes. So I think [of] the Chinese in a peacekeeping role, including dealing with the challenges of contemporary peacekeeping, which very often involve dealing with spoilers—it’s not just a matter of patrolling boundaries and reporting. It is a matter of engaging periodically to quell and move out disruptors of that process and quelling atrocity crimes in extreme cases. I think China understands all that and is playing according to that script. I think they see it as part of the business as being a responsible stakeholder, responsible player, responsible in an international community, and we shouldn’t be too cynical about that in reading their motives. We should applaud it when we see it. And when we get unhappy with Chinese overreach, or [China] saying something on the Security Council that doesn’t seem consistent with those global order universal values, then we should pull it out, by all means. But recognize it when you see it, and don’t just assume that all things are some kind of extreme realist game. It’s more complicated than that.

Some Eastern authoritarians and other Eastern political theorists have criticized what the United Nations would call “universal values” and have claimed that these values are not universal, but are Western constructs. How would you respond?

Yeah. I mean, of course, I agree that these values are universal. I mean, a lot of the so-called Western values. When I was researching and promoting the responsibility to protect concept, and in particular, the conditions, the criteria that should determine a decision to use military force, I went back to those principles of Just War theory, which everybody thinks of the beginning and end in medieval Christian theology, Thomas Aquinas and all those—you know what I’m talking about—Just War theory. When I researched it properly, the key elements in that, which are last resort, proportionality, and all the rest of them, social gravity of the issue, all of those principles are there in the Confucian tradition, Islamic tradition, Buddhism, and Hindu [tradition] and various other religious and cultural traditions. I mean, just as the, “Do unto others as you want people to do onto you,” supposedly core-Christian central belief is really quite universal when you explore its manifestations on other cultures, other religions. So too is when you use the military force. So the creation of the United Nations, the United Nations charter, there’s a universal declaration. These big conventions, when the United States was still joining conventions, they do reflect genuinely universal values, and it’s time we recognize that and we have to in order to give them salience. It’s not just yours versus ours.

There are cultural differences, of course, and the greater focus on the collectivity rather the individual in most Asian traditions, and so on. And of course, you can find that. Of course, that influences behavior in how people read a particular situation. And of course, it influences the conductive diplomacy, because of the whole concept of face, and avoiding humiliation, and so on, and avoiding being called out publicly. I mean, but if course there is a genuine sense [of] their cultural sensitivities, which you have to be careful to navigate sensibly. I always made this point about human rights representations. I said, “There’s three things that can come from these sorts of representations. They can be productive, which is optimal. People respond and react positively. They can be unproductive, in which you make the point and the other side just does nothing in response. Or they can be counterproductive. You can make the point, and because you’re making the point in a way that is found offensive, or confronting, or humiliating, or not helping people to maintain their face, then they’ll do the exact opposite of what you want them to do. They’ll actually execute someone who they might have been prepared to just keep in jail for the future, or they’ll perpetrate some other [human rights violation]. And I’ve plenty of examples of all three: productive, unproductive, counterproductive. So you’ve got to move your way through these cultural sensitivities, but don’t be spooked by them, and never, ever in the conduct of international relations move away from the core notion [of] the things that matter most. Our common humanity and everything associated with it is a matter of universal norms and values. It’s not a matter of ownership by any one cultural tradition.

Tell our readers a bit about the birth of R2P and the challenges you faced in its nascent stages.

Well, I mean, in terms of the beginnings of R2P, it had its birth in the terrible reality of the 1990s. That there was no consensus whatever between the Global North and the Global South about how to react to these exploding series of genocidal catastrophes. There’d been earlier catastrophes in Cambodia in the ’70s and so on, but the ’90s—mainly because it was post-Cold War era—everybody thought the new era was prevailing, and yet in the Balkans, in Rwanda, we had these shocking catastrophes about which the world seemed to be impotent and divided even when we acted together in—not together [always,]  when we acted decisively in Kosovo in ’99, it was without the support of the Security Council because Russian vetoes and all the rest of it. So there was a consensus freeze. Kofi Annan in the 2000 Millennium [UN] General Assembly says, “If humanitarian intervention is such an indefensible assault on state sovereignty, how then do we react to these terrible assaults on our common humanity in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and elsewhere?”

In response to that, the Canadians set up this international commission which I co-chair, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. We came up with the idea of how to take responsibility to protect. The core innovation of which was, for a start, just linguistic. Instead of the right to intervene, which is the rallying cry for the Global North right of humanitarian intervention, we changed the language. Right became responsibility. Intervention became protection. You just soften it and change the perspective. And that was very important. And it was also broadening out because it wasn’t just military, it was non-military forms of response strategy. It wasn’t just reaction, it was prevention. And it was post-crisis rebuilding. So all of that. Then the thing evolves after our report in 2005. It’s embraced unanimously by the General Assembly, and how that happens is a story in itself. It gets a little bit narrowed in its formulation. My commission talked about not just genocide and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes, but about natural disasters, which also generated an international responsibility for assistance. In order to get the thing through the General Assembly in an acceptable form and still have bite, that was narrowed down to the four crimes, so-called: genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crime—and that’s fine. I always try to do a little extra on that. And so we have this triumph in 2005 getting the thing unanimously endorsed, which is a huge conceptual breakthrough because it really did challenge the traditional sovereignty notion that what happened internally was, essentially, states’ own business.

Okay. Where have we come since 2005? In a nutshell, I think there are four benchmarks that should be used to assess the credibility and utility of our work. I think [on] three of them we’re doing pretty well, but the fourth one, manifestly, we’ve got issues. The first one is, how well is it established as a genuine, new, normal day principle with effectively those who abide by it? I think the answer to that is, yes, it has been so established. Yes, there are a few spoilers. Yes, there are a few people that continue to sort of question whether, in practice, they’ll ever be any cases in which military intervention is justified at the extreme. Of course, there’s doubts and reservations, but if you look at the whole course of those debates in the UN General Assembly over the last eight years, if you look at Security Council resolutions, in backing the concept, I mean, it’s okay. It’s, basically, acceptable, which means—that doesn’t mean it’s going to be implemented, but it’s accepted as a normality of thinking. And I think to some extent, there has been a mindset change. And my favorite example is Henry Kissinger, in December 1975, six months after Khmer Rouge at Phnom Penh made clear their genocidal intentions. Kissinger famously says to the then Thai prime minister, “You can tell those Cambodians, we’ll be their friends. They’re a murderous bunch of thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.” Yes, there’s plenty of cynicism around these days, but I don’t think anyone could possibly be that cynical now about evidence of genuine atrocities that has been proved right. I mean, they may even find all sorts of reasons for inaction, but the mindset that this is just, “Well, that’s just par for the course in international relations issues.” I just think that’s—anyway, that’s an enormous benchmark.

The second benchmark is, how to be as a catalyst for institutional change, institutional preparedness, institutional effectiveness, civilian preparedness, military preparedness, bureaucratic preparedness, in the sense of having these focal points within national governments and intergovernmental organizations, whose job it is to recognize these unfolding situations and to energize an internal response in all the relevant fires if the worst happens. All that’s happening on a reasonable scale. And inspired by responsibility to protect principle. And there’s now 59 countries that have been following it. About half of them are real, and about half of them are totally cosmetic, but nonetheless, this is—and in other countries. There’s a big group of friends about to be in New York which is working on these issues. That’s the institutional issue.

Third thing is out to be as a preventive mechanism. How effective has it been in focusing attention on potentially explosive issues before they get completely out of hand? Answer, not bad at all. Not bad at all. There’s much more focus now on this than there really used to be. I mean, take for example handled just by country, Burundi next door to Rwanda, exactly the same demography as Rwanda, hugely explosive, on the brink of a meltdown year after year after year. Still, in deep doo-doo, but every time it gets to the point where it looks like the place is going to go up in flames, there’s a full-court diplomatic press from the AU, the UN, and others. The Security Council convenes and the focus on it dampens down. And R2P language occurs regularly, “We got to prevent, got to prevent, got to prevent a genocide from exploding.” And you can find other examples as well. But with prevention, when preventions succeed, nothing happens and, therefore, nobody notices. I mean, just by definition, some prevention is always tricky to get traction for, recognition for.

Then, the final benchmark is effective reaction. When things really do go badly wrong. It’s like that now obviously in Syria, in Yemen, in Nicaragua back in 2009, Myanmar now with the expulsion, effectively, of the Rohingya people. Some very good positive examples: Kenya, again, 2008, Côte d’Ivoire, 2011, Libya, first part of 2011. The initial response to Libya, not to go through all the boring details, but the march on Benghazi was seen inevitably resulting in the massacre of many thousands of people. And that inspired the Security Council to agree, after initial earlier forays into sanctions and so on, into accepting a military intervention, which stopped Gaddafi short in his tracks.

That was the absolute high point of our campaign. It was working exactly as it was supposed to work. When prevention fails, mobilize the community in effectively stopping a massacre. Then, of course, Libya went wrong because the P3, France, UK, U.S., allowed a civilian protection mandate to turn effectively into a regime change mandate. They went after Gaddafi. They said, “We’ve got a Security Council mandate to use nuclear force and we’re going to go all the way, and we’re not going to stop until this guy is dead and gets deposed and the regime is overturned.” And that generated a huge negative reaction from the BRICS countries, not only China and Russia but India, Brazil, South Africa, who were all on the Security Council at the time. That, in turn, played very directly into the pathetic response to Syria when Syria exploded in 2011. When Syria first erupted, it was one-sided violence of the kind that Libya had been, a regime against unarmed demonstrators. Had the Security Council intervened, not militarily, but intervened with strong condemnation, sanctions, threats of International Criminal Court prosecution, arms embargoes, a huge message would have been sent to Assad that he had embarked on an unacceptable path. But that message was not given. The Security Council completely deadlocked because people see it [as], “Look at what you guys did in Libya. If we start even on the first step of this business, you’ll just treat this as another opportunity for another imperialist overreach, military operation. And we are now, as a result, where we are, and it’s going to be very hard to pull back from there.

But I still think there’s a way forward. I mean, [I’ll] go into detail if you like. There’s this proposal. The Brazilians are working on responsibility while protecting, which basically boils down to two propositions. You should, before you agree on the Security Council to giving a military mandate, be absolutely satisfied with those four or five criteria for the use of military force. Proportionality, and last resort, and balance of consequences. The fact that everything else is likely to fail. The proportionality and balance of consequences. The first part of R2P was, whose criteria should we systematically debate and apply so everybody is on the same page in terms of the justification for military force, which does tend not to happen. These people make speeches, and they do the backroom lobbying, and da da da da da. But at least get it articulately out there. And the second thing, of course, is some sort of monitor and review mechanism to ensure that mandates are monitored, whether the mandate is formal or less formal. What matters is that those who have a mandate have to explain themselves and argue for its continuation or maybe even its increase or its abandonment. And that’s a very important set of principles which, in my conversations over recent years with the Russians and the Chinese among others, I think they are prepared to accept it. If there was some formal embrace of that kind of approach, I think they might be re-achieving consensus of the Security Council in these hardest of cases. But the Americans are among the hardest to persuade about this. They just don’t like any limitation of the divine right of ad hoc-ery [laughter]. Each case is, “We call it as we see it, and we make our own judgments, and we’re not going to be bound.” So we are where we are, and that’s not going to get any better now with the Trump administration, clearly, because they just don’t get any of this stuff. They’re not committed to any kind of decency and finding solutions to these problems. But you’ve got to look at all these things in the long arc of history and not be too consumed by what is current. So that’s my take on R2P.

Okay. I have a couple of rapid-fire questions for you. Where do you get your news?

From traditional sources. Newspapers, radio, from people emailing me links to articles that are worth reading. Not from Twitter. Not from Facebook. Not from any other known form of social media [laughter]. I’m just not in those loops. But I do think one way or another, and then I get 150 or more emails a day from—and all sorts of subscribers who are constantly bombarding me with articles about this and that, like international Crisis group reports. And I see Foreign Policy, I see Foreign Affairs. I mean, yesterday, Jake Sullivan had an article in Foreign Policy about U.S.-China. Today, Kurt Campbell or someone’s got an article about U.S.-China. Foreign Affairs. Yeah. So I mean, that’s where I get my sense of what the rest of the world is doing and thinking, but.

What place would you most like to visit?

What place would I most like to—probably revisit because I’ve been to about 165 countries, I think, over the course of my career. Still on my bucket list, Tibet definitely. I’ve never actually been to Tibet. And I’d like to go to the Galápagos Islands just to see the nature in its rawest and most fascinating form. But apart from that, I think I’ve just about been everywhere.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

Wasn’t in my current job, I’d be lying on the beach reading all the books that I’ve been wanting to read for the last 50 years but haven’t had a chance to. And watching a lot of movies, and eating a lot of good food, and drinking a lot of good wine.

Great. Great. Which living person do you most admire?

Which living person. It was a dead one I admire most of all, and he’s on the cover of my book. And that’s Nelson Mandela, just because I think he’s a—I don’t see many candidates for sainthood anywhere in the world.

That’s all right. What keeps you up at night?

Worrying whether I’ve made a complete fool of myself by publishing a memoir with the title Incorrigible Optimist [laughter].

I like it a lot. And what is your advice for college students?

Don’t give up on politics. The disposition of the current generation, as one of my assistants I quote in my book [says],  is to have bull shit detectives in overdrive [laughter]. Everyone’s understandably very cynical about the political process, what’s delivering and not delivering. But the reality is, you can do incredibly good things in a microenvironment, in community service and other realms—even through the non-government community, you can play an influential roleb—ut you can’t actually change the macroenvironment unless you’re inside the tent at the table.

So in the words of Joe Hill, the old—anyone remember Joe Hill at all? Pete Seeger folk song and others. “Don’t mourn for me. Organize.” He was a union worker executed on a trumped-up charge in 1910 by the state of Utah firing squad. And the night before he was killed, wrote to his supporters saying, “Don’t mourn—